A Message from Dean Marvin Curtis
History reminds us that in Virginia in the 1680s, an enslaved African American could not travel off the plantation without a "pass," and he was subject to questioning by any White person. In 1702, the New York Provincial Assembly enacted two laws. The first prohibited African Americans from testifying against Whites. The second prohibited gathering of African Americans in groups larger than three on public streets. The Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law in 1705, stating that if a master happened to kill a slave who was undergoing "correction," it was not a crime. In 1737, the New York City Common Council enacted an ordinance stating that no Black man could appear in the streets an hour after sunset.
America, while not enforcing these archaic laws today, has woven them consciously or subconsciously into the cultural fabric of our justice and policing system. The very idea that a Black person has to be perpetually under surveillance is an abhorrent concept, but we see it today. We have witnessed it recently in the murder of Ahmaud Aubrey as he was out jogging.
The recent murders of Breonna Taylor in St. Louis and George Floyd in Minneapolis are examples of police brutality that is all too familiar to African Americans. The total disregard for human life because Black lives do not matter has come to the forefront in the demonstrations and civil unrest in our nation. The time for talking and waiting is over. If America is going to survive, she must remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr as he sat in a Birmingham Jail in 1963.
When you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are), and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness" -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.
Fifty-seven years have passed, and I have been called the "n" word. My credentials and talent have been questioned because "how could a Black man do all of this?" I have been treated with disrespect by White people because "I should not be in this job." I stand in fear of the police when reaching for my registration in my glove compartment. I envision being thrown to the ground and handcuffed for asking why I was stopped. I fear being killed. I have been accused by White women, not only in public settings but also in academia of being "big and scary and causing them to be in fear." I am labeled "confrontational and difficult" when I use my voice to express concern, but my White counterpart is labeled "passionate."
There are no simple solutions. The DNA of America has made my African American life difficult, stretching directly back to the day my ancestors came to these shores in chains. The laws of my servitude were designed to keep me fearful and without hope. Education became the key to unlock those doors, but America's educational system has been an indoctrination of falsehoods, half-truths, and distortions. The academy is complicit in this indoctrination, and it is time for a reality check. It is time to get her house in order.
When people value the history of others, they begin to value people differently. Universities and cultural institutions must stop the once a year art and cultural celebrations about Black people meant only to ease their conscience. They must teach the historical facts, not as a specialty course, but as part of the primary curriculum. As a student, I was required to study the history and works of European composers and some American composers, but never the history or music of African or African American composers or artists. I never discussed George Bridgetower, Paul Robeson, or Sissiereetta Jones. I never discussed James Reese Europe, William Grant Still, or Florence Price--and the list continues. I learned on my own and discovered the rich heritage of my people. I made it my business to expose myself to all of those about whom I had not heard.
I arrived on IU South Bend's campus in 2008 as the first African American dean in the history of IU South Bend. I saw the need to expose my students and faculty to artists and composers that many had never studied. Thus, the creation of Lift Every Voice...Celebrating the African American Spirit concerts, bringing African American artists to perform on the campus. The Ernestine M. Raclin School of the Arts 2011 production of A Raisin in the Sun was led by an African American guest director, Walter Allen Bennett, Jr. We welcomed many other African American guest artists, and the collaboration with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra led to the creation of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concerts. However, these programs are just the surface.
Unless the canon of education changes, unless the faculty dig much deeper, unless there is a real presence of African American faculty on the campus, students and community will never hear our voices. Without efforts toward inclusion on a sincere and serious level, the stereotypes that have developed, the narrative that there is only ONE culture, will continue. The arts have a unique place to help change the tide, but not as a "specialty" course but within the course itself. The academy is complicit in racial stereotyping when the required work does not include the study of anything but White people. The University is complicit in racial stereotyping when search committees overlook qualified African American candidates because they do not look like them. The academy is complicit when it sees the inequities of education, yet it places obstacles to "weed" out those they feel are inadequate. We have to change what we do and teach the truth. All the truth. George Washington was the "Father of our Country," but George Washington also owned 340 enslaved African Americans.
We must do better. The days of talking about diversity and inclusion are over. I will soon depart as the first African American dean in the over 100-year history of Indiana University South Bend. I was joined by the School of Education dean, Dr. Marvin Lynn, an African American, for a few years. When he took a new position, I again became the only one. My voice, presence, and passion helped create the programs now in place and brought an African American presence to the campus, but what happens when my voice is not on campus? As our campus continues to become more diverse, will Black and Brown students be taught only one story? Will the campus resort to the safety net of teaching and performing what is easy or grow into teaching what can be a painful and complicated past? The University, like the country, is at a crossroads. We must heed the words of Paul Robeson,
"To be free…to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil, to give our children every opportunity in life—that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny that we hold in our hands."
--Marvin V. Curtis, Dean